October 1, 2008 Edition

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Parachute Inn changes hands

Rhonda Higginbotham (right) officially became the new owner of the Parachute Inn today. Donna Robertson (left), previous owner, symbolically passes on the baton to Higginbotham by passing her a Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 hat.
TD Photos ~ Frank M. Witowski Jr.
Frank M. Witowski Jr.
Staff Writer

The Parachute Inn has landed with a new owner, but customers will still see the same friendly faces serving them.

Donna Robertson of O'Kean has owned the well-known restaurant with its Boeing 737 airplane dining room since February 2000. She recently decided it was time for her to slow down and began looking for someone to take ownership of the business, located at 10 N. Sky Watch on the edge of Walnut Ridge Regional Airport's Swindle Field.

"I was telling some people that if I found someone who liked the restaurant, I'd be willing to sell," Robertson said. "I had several others who wanted it, but the girls (employees Waynoma Strong and Rhonda Higginbotham) said they didn't want anything to change."

When Higginbotham expressed interest in taking over ownership, she was an obvious choice.

"It was my decision who I thought could do the best job running the restaurant, and I picked Rhonda," Robertson said.

Since Higginbotham is Robertson's niece, "the business will stay in the family," she added. Higginbotham officially became the new owner as of today.

A beautician by trade, Higginbotham, who lives in Imboden, has been working at the restaurant the past five years. In that time, she has watched and assisted as the Parachute Inn went from a struggling business to a booming attraction with people from all across the United States dining there. A map of the United States hangs behind the cash register with tacks showing the locations where customers call home.

"It's overwhelming ~ the number of customers and clientele we have," Robertson said. Approximately three years ago, the business expanded its dining space by connecting a 92-foot long, 14-foot wide, 60-seater airplane to the restaurant. This addition truly helped the business take off.

"It's been a wonderful experience for me," Robertson said. "We've made so many friends. It's been so rewarding, and it will be for her. She runs it now when I'm off work."

While some businesses make changes with new ownership, Higginbotham promises things will remain the same, and Robertson will continue working on a part-time basis.

Higginbotham assures customers that catfish, homemade hushpuppies and coconut pie, served in a friendly, unique atmosphere, will continue to be trademarks of the Parachute Inn.

Robertson has some plans for her semi-retirement, which include spending more time with her husband, Kenneth, at their cabin in Melbourne, relaxing and traveling. She is also mayor of O'Kean.

Robertson said the busiest day at Parachute Inn was July 3 of this year. According to Robertson, there were lines of people waiting outside to be served as the restaurant was filled to capacity. On that day, some friends and faithful patrons, who were dining at the time, volunteered and helped serve the unprecedented crowd, she said.

Robertson, with a glow about her face, said she opened the Parachute Inn with no food service experience but with a dream of seeing the restaurant business take off. Prior to running the business, Robertson was a medical assistant at Dr. Robert Quevillon's office in Walnut Ridge.

"When he retired, I opened this up," she said.

As a symbolic gesture of turning over the reins to her niece, Robertson gave Higginbotham a Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 hat that she received from customer Martha Coker.

The Parachute Inn will continue to be open for business Tuesday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. and Friday and Saturday evenings from 5-9 p.m. The business also specializes in catering during hours the Parachute Inn is closed.

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